LITTLE ROCK — After inheriting three true non-conference road games in his first season as head coach at Arkansas in 2019-20, Eric Musselman has quickly shifted (with a big assist from Razorbacks Director of Basketball Operations Anthony Ruta) to a neutral-site themed slate for ’20-21.
Last week’s announcement of an annual multi-game series to be played against Oklahoma at the BOK Center in Tulsa — beginning with a Dec. 12, 2020, matchup — guarantees the Razorbacks will play at least four neutral-site games next season. That includes two games in MGM Resorts’ “Main Event” in Las Vegas, a 4-team tournament that will showcase the Hogs, Louisville, Colorado State, and San Francisco. The Hogs will also play Old Dominion in December at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock — although it’s more like a home game, technically it’s a neutral-site contest.
The OU tilt in Tulsa — which is only a two-hour drive from Fayetteville — will be one of two trips to the northeast Oklahoma city in ’20-21 as the Hogs will also travel there for a road game against the defending American Athletic Conference champion Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
In both cases, Razorbacks fans will have a short trip to Tulsa to cheer on their team.
“If you kind of go back and look at how we scheduled at Nevada, we had a lot of games in the Bay Area for the same reason,” Musselman said during a Zoom media event on Wednesday, May 6. “We’d like to do some games that are close here. No. 1, it helps your student-athletes from a travel standpoint. It helps your student-athletes as far as we’re going to have a lot of parents be able to go to this particular game. And then I think there is some really positives that come out of a neutral site environment as far as preparation for SEC Tournament play, for potentially playing in the NCAA Tournament. That was our thinking on neutral site games in the past.
“The Las Vegas games are going to give us some neutral site games against some really good competition, and so will this. I think it’s just going to be benefit our guys to be in those types of environments.”
If Arkansas is once again selected to take part in the annual Big 12-SEC Challenge in late January, the Hogs will likely have another non-conference road game. So peeking ahead to what we now know about the ’20-21 non-conference schedule, there will be at least four neutral-site games and one true road game with the possibility of a second true road game, which would mean 6 of the 13 non-conference matchups being played away from the Hogs’ home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
From a postseason resume-building standpoint, those neutral-site games plus the known road game could give Arkansas a boost in both strength of schedule and NCAA NET rankings. Looking at the NCAA NET ranking finishes last season for Louisville at No. 8, Oklahoma at No. 46, Tulsa at No. 78, and San Francisco at No. 83, if those rankings are the same or similar for those teams in ’20-21 the Razorbacks could be staring at two Quad 1- and two Quad 2-win opportunities.
Arkansas went 2-0 in non-conference Quad 1-win opportunities last season — winning at Georgia Tech and at Indiana. And the Hogs were 2-0 in neutral-site games in Musselman’s first season as Head Hog, defeating Valparaiso 72-68 in December in North Little Rock and beating Vanderbilt 86-73 on March 11 in Nashville, Tenn., in the first round of the SEC tournament, which turned out to be the season finale due to the covid-19 pandemic.
Before coming to Arkansas, Musselman debuted as an NCAA Division 1 head coach with four seasons at Nevada of the Mountain West Conference. Musselman’s Wolf Pack teams went 21-9 in regular-season non-conference away games (includes 11-3 in neutral-site games) and 8-6 in postseason neutral-site games (6-3 in MWC tournament games and 2-3 in NCAA tournament games). Counting his 2-0 neutral-site record at Arkansas last season, Musselman is 21-9 in all neutral-site games spanning his five-year career as a college head coach.
At Nevada, economics played a significant role in scheduling.
“The No. 1 philosophy is how do we get the very best non-conference schedule that we can?” Musselman recalled. “If you just go back the last four years, where our non-conference schedule, we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to schedule within the best of our ability to stay within budget stuff. Obviously when you’re at a mid-major, budget comes into play for sure when you try to put together a schedule. I think a mix of things. You want to try to get some neutral site games, you want to try to play in some tough environments to get yourself ready for true road games.
“We would expect that this game in Tulsa (against Oklahoma in December) will have an incredibly great crowd for both teams. It’s going to be an environment that it should be very fun to play in for the players. Then you go play some road games that are hard, as well, that are true road games. And you try to play as good a team as you can at a neutral site game. There’s a potential for that in Las Vegas.”
Then there’s recruiting. In the past, Razorback icons such as Lee Mayberry and Clint McDaniel hailed from Tulsa. And as recently as the 2018 recruiting class, Arkansas plucked Tulsa native Reggy Chaney as well as Keyshawn Embery-Simpson (from Midwest City, Okla.), although Embery-Simpson transferred to Tulsa following the ’18-19 season and will face former Hog teammates when the two teams square off next season.
Currently, Arkansas is pursuing national Top 50 / 4-star prospect Trey Alexander, a 6-5 combo guard who stars at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma. Alexander was the first class of 2021 prospect that Musselman offered a scholarship to upon taking the job at Arkansas, and Alexander has since visited Fayetteville unofficially (last year) before Musselman recently hosted him on a virtual tour.
The UA-OU game in Tulsa — basically the mid-point between Fayetteville and Norman, Okla. where the Sooners call home — is an opportunity for Arkansas to impress Alexander and other native-Oklahoma recruits in the future.
“I do think it’s important, for sure,” Musselman said of playing non-conference games in the Hogs’ recruiting footprint. “Our game in Little Rock, I’ve only been a part of one of them and I think that game last year helped us a lot in recruiting. I really do. Certainly, we’ve got two games in Tulsa next year, so obviously it’s important for us as a program. We feel if we’re playing two games there out of your 30 that there is importance to it, for sure.”
Musselman has a partner in scheduling to be certain as he credits Ruta as being the architect of the yearly endeavor of putting together a competitive non-conference slate.
“Coach Ruta plays a huge part in our scheduling and he has for the last six years,” Musselman said. “He puts a lot of time in and he studies it. I think he’s as good as any schedule guy in the entire country. I was more concerned, quite frankly, with what Coach Ruta thought of the (UA-OU) game based on his research and time that he spends in trying to put forth the best non-conference to give us a chance for postseason play.”